In the Central Division, it’s never too early to scoreboard-watch; that’s why it was humorous when less than a week into the Wild season, a Wild Xtra blogger tweeted four results from the Central “because we’re sadists.”
With the Wild on what has become an annual oddly-timed hiatus in its schedule early in the season that enables others to artificially pass it in the standings, @masonloft noted that Nashville beat New Jersey, Winnipeg beat the Rangers, Dallas beat Edmonton and St. Louis beat Calgary all on an evening in which the Wild was idle.
In the “new” NHL playoff format that is going into its third season, the top three teams in each division make the playoffs with the next two highest in points in each conference earning wild card spots.
Not shockingly, the Central Division was represented by five teams in each of the past two postseasons, the Pacific by three.
It’s hard to imagine that won’t happen a third year in a row this season.
“I don’t even look at the conference anymore. I look at the division,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, his team looking to repeat as Central champs, said last week. “I just don’t see a weak team, and you can’t put seven teams in the playoffs. It’s impossible. So the division points are critical, the division games are critical.”
In the old days, the powers inside divisions were cyclical. It changed over time.
But in the Central, it’s hard to envision how any of the teams will fall off dramatically. This is why owner Craig Leipold was told to be careful what he wished for when he won his long pursuit of getting the Wild realigned into the cutthroat yet geographically more desirable division from the now-defunct Northwest.
Chicago, with its core, is staying strong. Dallas has star power in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Nashville has star blue-liners in Shea Weber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones. Winnipeg is a big, tough team with some of the NHL’s best kids on the way. Colorado won the Central two years ago and has a young core in Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog. And the deep Blues might have the division’s most electrifying player in Vladimir Tarasenko.
So far this season, the Wild’s veterans have been strong and the youngsters — Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba — look ready to take the next step.
Heading into the weekend, the Wild was 2-0 against the Central with Colorado being the only other team with a divisional victory (against the Stars). During the rest of the season, these proverbial four-point games will be critical.
“I think the division games will end up deciding whether you get in the playoffs or not,” Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock still likes the old playoff format better.
“I’m a little old-school,” said Hitchcock, the NHL’s oldest coach at 63. “I always like 1 vs. 8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5 because I think it makes it more fair for the teams that have great seasons and should be rewarded.
“Like, the reward for coming in second in the Central Division is not great, it’s not fun.”
In the meantime, Wild coach Mike Yeo won’t waste any time worrying about it. The Wild is in the Central. It’s not leaving anytime soon. And the playoff format appears here to stay.
“I went in with that expectation, so you don’t have too many disappointments,” Yeo said last week at a time when nobody in the division had a losing record. “We are always watching the scores and seeing what goes on around the league, but it leads to too much frustration if you just get hung up on that stuff.
“We know we play in a great division, we know what the competition is, and we know that we’re going to have to win a lot of hockey games, so the main thing is just to concentrate on ourselves.”
NHL SHORT TAKES
Backstrom trade to Buffalo unlikely
The most common question from Wild fans lately has been whether Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher could get his old pal and counterpart in Buffalo, Tim Murray, to trade for goalie Niklas Backstrom.
The Sabres lost goalie Robin Lehner for six to eight weeks because of a high ankle sprain. It still seems unlikely the Sabres would have interest. They’re going to start by giving Chad Johnson a chance, and if that doesn’t work, there should be younger and cheaper options than Backstrom, and that’s even if the Wild retained half his $4 million salary and $3.417 million cap hit.
Teams rules are team rules, so even though it was Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz scratched the star against San Jose after he missed the morning skate. Ovechkin said he set his alarm clock for 8:30 p.m., not 8:30 a.m.
“Coaching is not about equality, but there are certain foundational things [that apply],” Trotz said in a Washington Post report. “We’ve done a lot of things from a cultural standpoint that makes this team very accountable to each other, and that’s why it’s very important that certain things apply to everybody.”
The Blue Jackets, who many critics expected to have a good season, were 0-5 and Sergei Bobrovsky had a 5.07 goals-against average heading into Saturday’s game at Chicago.
“I have zero confidence right now,” Bobrovsky said last week.
With expectations high, you can bet former Wild coach Todd Richards’ seat is hot. John Tortorella, Randy Carlyle and Ron Wilson are looking for jobs. Similarly, Anaheim is winless in four games heading into Sunday’s game vs. the Wild.
WILD’S WEEK AHEAD
(Games on FSN)
Sunday: 7 p.m. at Anaheim. Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Columbus. Saturday: 5 p.m. vs. Anaheim.
Player to watch: Brandon Saad, Columbus
The former Blackhawks young gun was stunned this summer when he was traded to the Blue Jackets in a salary-cap move.
“In 2005 when I came in, [half the team] or the 4, 5, 6 defensemen, they couldn’t really skate.”
— Zach Parise on the evolution of the fast NHL.
“Hockey started, and we’re waiting around right now.”
— Ryan Getzlaf after the Ducks were shut out on home ice by Arizona.